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Fitting Finish | Elk Grove Basketball Makes History Fitting Finish | Elk Grove Basketball Makes History
With A Talented And Ambitious Core Of Seniors Leading The Way, Elk Grove Basketball Claimed Its First State Title • There was really no... Fitting Finish | Elk Grove Basketball Makes History

With A Talented And Ambitious Core Of Seniors Leading The Way, Elk Grove Basketball Claimed Its First State Title •

There was really no other way for the Elk Grove basketball season to end. The Thundering Herd celebrating the program’s first-ever CIF State Basketball Championship on the Golden1 Center court was a storybook ending that was written long before the final buzzer sounded.

“We knew from the start of the season that we could do great things,” senior guard Karlos Zepeda said a little more than week after the team’s 62-56 win over Foothill-Santa Ana. “We never doubted that we could win state.”

The Herd’s swagger was built more on confidence than cockiness. Led by a tight-knit group of four seniors that grew up together on the basketball court, Elk Grove overcame every obstacle to come out on top. But one has to read the early chapters of the story to appreciate the ending.

Zepeda, Ameere Britton, Dajon Lott, Jr., and Jordan Hess began playing basketball together in AAU and by the time the foursome was in middle school, they formed a bond they wanted to build on all the way through high school. The group made a commitment to play together and build something at Elk Grove High where hoops have taken a backseat to football, baseball and even wrestling for most of the current century.

Bill Catrwright put Elk Grove basketball on the map in the 1970s, but Herd hoops had not seen much of a heyday since then.

“We stuck together to all play at Elk Grove” said Lott, a 6-foot-8 forward who chose the Herd over his neighborhood school, Valley High of Sacramento.


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The group committed to see it through for four years — no transfers and no quitting.

It did not take long for the pieces to come together and for the confidence to start building.

Karlos Zepeda
Karlos Zepeda rises up for a jumper during the state final. (David Gershon photos)

In the group’s second season, Elk Grove posted a 21-9 record and fell to Grant-Sacramento in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. It was the Herd’s first winning season in four years, but the Herd made progress in competing with the league and section heavyweights. After losing their first game against local powerhouse Sheldon-Sacramento 81-35, Elk Grove regrouped to hold the Huskies to just 58 points in their second Delta League showdown and won their playoff opener over Tracy.

The strides that the program was making under head coach Dustin Monday and a maturing young core of players boosted expectations for the 2020-21 season. But, when COVID hit, seasons were delayed and eventually shortened to a disappointing league-focused campaign. Elk Grove finished 10-1, including a 67-57 win over Sheldon, but the Herd knew that an opportunity to build momentum was lost.

But the momentum and confidence was renewed when sports were slated to return for the foursome’s last ride.

“In our sophomore year, chemistry and talent-wise we weren’t there yet, but we were winning games,” Lott said. “In our junior season, we could have gone to State, too, but that was the COVID season.”

“So for our senior year, we knew that we could not go out on a loss.”

Elk Grove Basketball, Dajon Lott, State Champions
Dajon Lott, who pushed his teammates to make a state title one of their goals, proudly holds the state championship trophy.

The team’s aspirations were high and shared among the entire roster before the 2021-2022 season began. Players stated goals of Delta League and Sac-Joaquin Section championship, but Lott took it one step further. Perhaps the greatest optimist or biggest dream-chaser, Lott, who goes by “Money” to everyone who knows him, was not satisfied with the team’s aspirations and unveiled his “Road to State” mantra.

“Before the season even started, guys were talking about needing to win section, and I was like ‘Nah, it’s the Road to State,’” Lott said.

That road was smooth to begin the season.

Elk Grove raced out to an 8-1 start in mostly tournament action before dropping a pair of games to Dublin and Inderkum-Sacramento. The Herd would rebound and opened league play with a 66-64 road victory over Sheldon and finished tied with the Huskies for the Delta League title with identical 11-1 records.

Home playoff wins over Atwater and Jesuit-Carmichael placed Elk Grove into the Section Division II semifinals with a showdown with Grant-Sacramento, the team that eliminated the Herd in the last playoff game they played. A back-and-forth contest needed an overtime period to decide the winner, and the Pacers dashed the Herd’s section title dreams. But, because Elk Grove advanced to the section semifinals, they were assured a spot in the regional playoffs.

“We were hurt and disappointed that we would not win a section championship, but we knew that we weren’t done,” Britton said of the team’s biggest adversity. “We weren’t afraid of anyone.”

Ameere Britton
Ameere Britton drives past a Foothill-Santa Ana defender during the second half of the state final.

When the NorCal playoff pairings were released, Elk Grove’s resume spoke volumes and the Herd was handed the top seed in Division II while Grant was placed in the Division I field. So, Elk Grove regrouped and got right back on its Road to State. 

“After losing at home to Grant in the playoffs, we all talked and watched film together,” Hess said of the transition from section to regional and state playoffs. “We knew what we had to do, and as seniors, we knew that we had to step up as a group.”

The seniors and the team as a whole did just that. Elk Grove opened with a relatively easy 67-50 win over Clovis East, and followed with a pair of narrow victories over San Ramon Valley-Danville and Vanden-Fairfield. As the No. 1 seed, Elk Grove would host second-seeded Branson-Ross in the familiar confines of their own gymnasium.

The Herd trailed all game and entered the final quarter down by two points before outscoring Branson 24-16 in the final eight minutes to win 60-54 and continue their Road to State. Britton led all scorers with 25 points and Lott added 17 points and 14 rebounds. Zepeda tallied 12 points which included a 7-for-7 performance at the free throw line to ice the game.

On the biggest stage, Elk Grove trailed only once — a 22-20 deficit in the second quarter — and held off Foothill-Santa Ana to achieve its ultimate goal of winning the state championship. In addition to being the program’s first, Elk Grove’s title was just the sixth boys championship for a school within the Greater Sacramento metro region.

“The whole journey was amazing,” Hess said of the postseason. “It was hard at times to stay in the moment and remain focused, but we played in lots of tournaments and big games growing up, so we were comfortable with the atmosphere.”

“Winning NorCal was a different feeling,” Lott said. “Winning in front of our home crowd to go to state was amazing, but winning state was the cherry on top. It was the icing on the cake.”

Elk Grove Basketball

The spoils of a state victory included a visit from a Sacramento morning television show, after which the entire team watched the tape of the state final as a group. The gathering provided the team an opportunity to reflect on the season, and thank their coaches, especially Monday, who was always quick to put the spotlight on his players all season long.

“He gives a lot of the credit to us and it was our chance to thank him for all that he did,” Lott said .”He knew that we had talent, but he got us all to buy in and come together as a team.”

After the film session ended, the realization that the journey was over, especially for the seniors, finally hit. Monday announced that there would be no more practices and called on “Money” Lott to put an official end to the season with one final break—a huddle with a quick  “1, 2, 3..Herd!”.

A fitting finish.

Jim McCue is a senior contributor to SportStars. He lives in Folsom with his wife and three kids, focusing his reporting on the Sac-Joaquin Section.

Jim McCue

Jim McCue is a senior contributor to SportStars. He lives in Folsom with his wife and three kids, focusing his reporting on the Sac-Joaquin Section.

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